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Forum: Keeping perspective on the Catholic Church

The sexual-abuse scandal that has shaken the church requires a strong response. But we must not lose sight of the enormous good of the church as a whole

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Bishop Donald W. Wuerl

Recently the Catholic Church in the United States has been shaken by a scandal involving the sexual abuse of minors by a number of priests. What gives this an added dimension is that some of these priests were reassigned to parish ministry after their ecclesiastical superiors were aware of the initial allegation. The current situation has caused all of us to rethink how priests are assigned to parish ministry in the face of a credible allegation of sexual misconduct involving a minor.

  The Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. 

The whole church -- bishops, priests and laity -- is being asked to look at the question of sexual abuse of a minor and its impact. It is my hope that out of this will come a new awareness of the nature of sexual abuse of minors, and the consequences of such activity in the ministry of a priest.

Nevertheless we must not lose perspective. Clergy abuse is being presented by some as an "epidemic" engaging "the entire Catholic priesthood." The priesthood is being portrayed essentially as defective and the hierarchy as inept at best. In sorting through all this we need to keep perspective.

We are dealing with a limited number of priests -- albeit one priest molester is too many. Charges range from inappropriate touching of a child to homosexual contact with a person in the late teens. Some scholars have pointed out that the incidence of abuse of a minor is no greater among Catholic priests than it is in any other sector of clerical life in our country and certainly no higher than the incidence in the general population. This is not by way of defense of clergy abuse but simply an indication that we need to keep perspective when we see all around us cries for the abolition of the priesthood as we know it today.

Recent editorials in several national news magazines have called for the abandonment of the more than millennium-old tradition of a celibate priesthood, the ordination of women and in some instances the rejection of the church itself as a means to salvation. Radio and television talk show hosts and their guests have also used this tragedy as a vehicle to bring forward countless other unrelated agenda items of their own. Last week, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in a piece dripping animosity, described Catholics and their church in terms of al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The moral teaching of the Catholic Church on such issues as abortion and pre-marital sex has come under fire because a number of priests have failed to live up to the moral law and the commitment they made at their ordination.

Mistakes have been made. No one denies that. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in his annual Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, refers to "the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis" -- the mystery of evil -- "at work in the world."

What we need to keep in mind is that church leadership is attempting to address these mistakes in a way that is both effective and yet compassionate, forgiving and honest.

It is always easy with hindsight to decide that you should have acted differently. To point out today that Catholic bishops should have known 20 or 30 years ago that some forms of child abuse were compulsive psychological disorders and not simply moral aberrations is to require of them something we demand of no one else. Out of a true Gospel desire to forgive, to heal, to make whole and to restore, many bishops considered an allegation of abuse of a minor as a moral defect that could be resolved in the same way that one, for example, addressed adultery.

Later we came to learn from the psychological sciences that this was an abnormality that required diagnosis and treatment. We were also assured that with proper treatment and oversight, this type of compulsive behavior could be controlled.

Bishops, accepting this modern scientific data, acted in good faith and restored priests to ministry. Some data seem to verify that a number of men did in fact successfully control their compulsive behavior.

Nonetheless we know today that the risk is too great. We cannot reassign to parish ministry a priest against whom there is a credible accusation of abuse of a minor. We cannot risk harm to even one child.

Much has been made of the so-called secrecy surrounding the reassignment of priests involved in child abuse. Confidentiality was and continues to be a value in some human dealings. There is not a segment in society where this is not true. Oftentimes people come to the church precisely because they seek healing in confidence. In many instances people came to the church expecting, even requiring, confidence because they did not want to go to the civil authorities or the media, even though they knew they could.

Today a certain level of confidentiality is as much the victim of the scandal involving abuse of minors as of anything else. Out of a well-intentioned desire to bring healing to a situation, many bishops and religious superiors worked quietly with victims and their families to restore a level of wholeness. Today such quiet healing may be the victim of the wide-ranging call that all details involving every aspect of child abuse be made public.

We have all learned much in recent years about the sexual abuse of a minor. Our perspectives have certainly changed. I know that mine did after dealing with this issue and visiting with victims and families as well as with priests and parishioners. I have also learned that while a bishop must consult with his staff representing many disciplines about important issues, he must always respond as a pastor with great care for all those entrusted to him.

We need to keep perspective. A number of priests have done terrible things. They have hurt young people and their families, themselves, and the whole church. But we also need to keep clearly in focus that within the church, bishops and pastors are working openly to bring an end to this type of activity and to see that it does not continue in the priesthood.

There is no evidence that pedophilia or homosexual activity with a minor is the result of celibacy or an all-male priesthood or the decision of Christ to entrust the leadership of his church to the apostles and their successors.

What we need to keep in perspective is a scandal that has occurred. Some serious harm has been done to young people by a number of priests, and it is the responsibility of bishops and the church as a whole to root out this problem and see that it does not continue. Once again I want to assure everyone that in the Diocese of Pittsburgh there is no priest assigned to parish ministry against whom there is a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.

While we recognize that a serious moral aberration has tainted the church we must not allow grievous human failure to so overwhelm our vision that we fail to see all the enormous good that the church, her faithful and her priests accomplish every day as we all try to grow closer to God.

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